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Theatrical Forms, Ideological Conflicts, and the Staging of Obi

Jeffrey N. Cox, University of Colorado at Boulder

  1. When John Fawcett's pantomime Obi; or, Three Finger'd Jack opened at London's Haymarket Theatre on 2 July 1800 for what was then a spectacular run of 39 performances in a single summer (the longest single season run for any play at the Haymarket between 1789 when Colman the Younger took charge of the theater and 1811 when Colman's Horses of Quedlinburgh tied Obi),1 England was in the midst of a decades long argument over the institution of slavery. While the first bill to abolish slavery had been introduced by William Wilberforce on 12 May 1789, Parliament did not abolish the slave trade until 1807, and even then slaves already held were not emancipated. When the great black actor Ira Aldridge took up this play, now adapted as a melodrama,2 England was still a slave-owning nation: an Emancipation Act was not passed until 1833 and slaves were not completely liberated in British colonies until 1838. Taking the stage throughout the period of England's debates over slavery, Obi in its various versions offers one way to gauge the response of English audiences to slavery and to those it oppressed. More particularly, Obi can reveal how difficult it was to find an appropriate form for bodying forth upon stage the horrors of slavery, as the genres and the institutional structure of the British theater worked to control a potentially radical message that was perhaps finally released not so much through the revisions that the text underwent as through the acting—what Henry Louis Gates would call the "signifyin[g]"—of Ira Aldridge (Signifying Monkey).

  2. The basic story staged in Obi certainly had the potential for offering a radical message. After all, Jack Mansong or Three-Finger'd Jack had been an escaped slave who for two years, 1780-81, raided the eastern end of Jamaica and evaded capture until Governor Dalling and the House of Assembly issued proclamations calling for his apprehension. While he seems to have largely worked alone, the fact that he could rely upon the local slave population not to betray him suggests he could be read as an emblem of a larger revolt. Moreover, he was known as an adept at Obi or obeah, a hybridized form of witchcraft practiced in Jamaica which, as Alan Richardson has shown (5-12) was quickly linked to slave revolts, in part because uprisings such as the Jamaican Tacky Rebellion had been led by obeah men.3 In the context of such events as the Haitian Revolution and what Eugene Genovese calls the "Great Maroon War of 1795-96," (67)4 undertaken by escaped slaves in Jamaica, Three-Finger'd Jack had the potential to provide the London stage with an emblem of slave revolt. William Earle, Jr., for example, published Obi; or, The History of Three Finger'd Jack the same year as the play was first produced, where he argued that Jack was "as bright a luminary as ever graced the Roman annals, or ever boldly asserted the rights of a Briton." In retelling Jack's story, Earle has his narrator proclaim:

    Jack was a man! The precepts of his country were instilled into his heart, and he did no wrong. Conscience smote him not; he knew it not. He was not hardened, for he was awake to feeling. He would do no harm to woman, child, or any defenceless being. He was not dead to the ties of nature, for he loved his mother. He was not dishonourable, for he would not lift his hand against a son of Africa. He loved his countrymen, and the stream of consanguintiy [sic] flowed warmly to his heart. The men of Europe were his foes, and he would hunt the world to revenge himself on the sanguinary sons of the white cliffs. From this short sketch I would have you say with me:
    Jack was a Man!!
    Jack was a Hero!!! (97)

    Clearly, Jack had the potential at the time to stand for a radical response to slavery. However, various features of the London stage made it quite difficult for this potentially radical ideological content to find a clear dramatic representation.

  3. First, we must remember that the London stage of the time was subject to prior government censorship. Ever since the passage of the Licensing Act of 1737, any play offered on the London stages had to be submitted to the government's Licenser of Plays before it could be performed, and the Licenser at the time, John Larpent, tended to ban all political references from the stage. As I have argued elsewhere, the government seems to have been concerned that audiences would act out any potentially radical message. George Colman the Younger, who managed the Haymarket when Obi was performed, later made this attitude clear when he became Licenser of Plays. Before a Parliamentary panel, he indicated that the word "reform" should not be spoken on the stage because it might provoke a political disturbance in the theater; he in fact objected to "anything that may be so allusive to the times as to be applied to the existing moment, and which is likely to be inflammatory" (66).5 It is, in fact, surprising how many references to the debate over slavery make it onto the stage at this time, which suggests that there was a growing consensus that some sort of regulation of slavery, if not its outright abolition, was needed.

  4. There was also a difficulty in finding a form appropriate for representing slavery and Jack's revolt against it. We might think that a historical account of the horrors of slavery and of a man's resistance to it would be a prime subject for tragedy,6 but Jack Mansong's story would be given quite different dramatic forms. John Fawcett, an enormously popular comic actor at Covent Garden as well as the Haymarket, made his playwriting debut with Obi.7 Drawing his story from Benjamin Moseley's Treatise on Sugar, with Miscellaneous Medical Observations, Fawcett made the somewhat controversial decision to stage his play as a pantomime, where the story is told through gesture and song. The Haymarket theater where he staged Obi was one of three patent theaters in London, that is, they were theaters licensed by the government to provide what was then called "legitimate drama," a complex phrase that suggested a protected legal status, conventional dramatic forms, and a lack of ideological controversy (Sutcliffe 1-7). When the pantomime of Obi established itself as a hit during the summer of 1800, the appropriately named review, The Dramatic Censor (3 [1801]: 15-16), was aghast at what it saw as the victory of dumb show on a stage dedicated to the glorious words of British drama. The play was seen as relying upon "illegitimate" forms of stagecraft—music, powerful action, scenery, special effects. The struggle between word and action, image, and special effects is perhaps always present in the drama: we can see it in the arguments between Ben Jonson and his set designer over staging court masks in the seventeenth century as well as in discussions about the relative merits of special effects and play-like dialogue in movies today. At the time Obi was produced, the defenders of the patent theaters still had hopes of containing the victory of sight over sound to one moment each year: the staging of the Christmas pantomime, or harlequinade, an almost ritualized form that staged the liberatory antics of Harlequin as he defeats various figures of conventional authority in order to win his love; these plays were so popular that they brought in enough money during their winter run to pay for productions of Shakespeare and other classic writers during the rest of the year, and thus the defenders of the spoken drama were willing to stage them as holiday fare if they were able to return to the conventional repertoire at other times.8

  5. These patent or licensed theaters had a problem, however. Their licenses gave them control over the spoken drama. It was, for example, illegal to stage Shakespeare outside these three major theaters. As other theaters sprang up, they were forced to rely upon the tactics of pantomime, music and spectacle. What became clear is that, just as moviegoers today would prefer to go see the new installment of Mission Impossible (which could essentially be done as a silent movie) over the new film version of Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus, so audiences then flocked to the new drama of sight and sensation over the older theater of the word. The result was that canny men and women of the theater such as Fawcett began using the tactics of these new theaters for plays at the patent or major theaters. Throughout the period, we hear complaints about the use of spectacle, pantomime, music, and even animal acts on the major London stages as they attempted to hold onto their audience; the introduction of horses into a revival of Colman's Blue-Beard and then into Matthew Lewis's "Grand Romantic Melo-Drama in Two Acts," Timour the Tartar (Covent Garden 1811) were seen as a particular low point, mocked in Colman's Horses of Quedlinburgh, for example. Just as critics then felt that Fawcett demeaned the Haymarket theater by offering the pantomime of Obi, we might feel that a pantomime done in blackface could not possibly body forth an important representation of slavery. I think, however, that Fawcett's play with its turn to an unconventional form provided an opportunity to put on stage some potentially radical material.

  6. This is not to suggest that Fawcett's play embraces Jack and his revolt. The play opens with a rather idyllic evocation of slavery at "an Extensive Plantation in Jamaica," for its opening song both laments the fact of slavery—as the white man brings his gold to purchase slaves from the African slaver and as the Africans are exiled from their homeland—and praises the kindness of the white slave owners: "if white man kind massa be, / He heal the wound in negro's heart." These slaves love their master because he rarely beats them, he keeps them well fed with couscous, and he "save us from Three-finger'd Jack" (I, i, p. 5). The black characters who are given the most positive portrait are Sam and Quashee who stand against Jack. Quashee in particular, who converts to Christianity in order to defeat Jack and win freedom for himself and his family, is offered as the anti-revolutionary figure in the play who will succeed because he accepts the white man's religion and because he proves to his white masters that he is worthy of freedom by doing their bidding.

  7. There are, however, features of the play that work against its overarching conservative message, as aspects of Jack's story and of his culture break free from the play's ideology. Jack, like the Gothic villain-heroes of the day such as Lewis's Osmond in The Castle Spectre (Drury Lane, 1797) and the hero of Maturin's Bertram; or, The Castle of St. Aldobrand (Drury Lane, 1816), is a character who is condemned by the play's final moral vision but who is also intensely attractive given his courage, the power of his personality, and the depth of his suffering. Fawcett reveals Jack's charismatic power as he uses Obi to cow a robber band (I, iii) and his physical, even military prowess as he repeatedly defeats his British pursuers. Again, while the play seems to call for the victory of Western culture over African culture, we also see on stage a slave celebration involving the hybridized figure of Jonkanoo, the lead masquerader in a dance troupe who wore a costume involving an elaborate headdress such as a horse head, a house, or a canoe. In that this scene (I, vi) would have been perhaps the most spectacular in the play, involving music, a procession, singing, and dancing, this counter-cultural celebration would carry great weight on stage. The same is true of the practice of obi; the play may celebrate Christianity, but it is obi which is given the most impressive moments on stage, particularly in Act I, scene iii.

  8. Two features of the pantomime form might also have contributed to a radical reading of the play. First, the very lack of dialogue allows a response to certain scenes not restricted by authorial pronouncements. The songs in the play can, of course, function to establish a controlling moral vision; for example, at the close of the play, the chorus sings of Jack's defeat, "Here we see villainy brought by law to short duration— / And may all traitors fall by British proclamation" (II, ix). However, Jack's actions on stage pass without such comment, and thus the audience is left to interpret him as it will, as is suggested by the reaction of the Dramatic Censor which clearly admires Jack more than it feels Fawcett does; we can glimpse the appeal Jack could have in an interesting turn of phrase in Earle's dedication of his work "To him who shall applaud Jack through the varied scenes of his life" ("Advertisement"). We need also remember that Jack was played by the leading man in the company, initially Charles Kemble, brother of John Phillip Kemble and Sarah Siddons. These aspects of the staging of the play encourage our identification with Jack rather than our judgment of him. Again, for us, the most controversial aspect of the play is that it was performed in blackface, a practice with a long history but one we connect with nineteenth-century American minstrel shows. On the London stage of 1800, however, and particularly in a pantomime, there is a possibility that Jack as a blackface figure in revolt would have been connected by the audience with the most popular pantomime figure, Harlequin, who donned a black mask to pursue his own form of revolt, as his anarchic antics liberate the erotic and target those who oppress the poor. It is possible that the original audiences for this play would have linked Jack with this wildly beloved figure of revolt.9 While, in the end, I think that Fawcett's pantomime played to a majority sentiment in the audience—that the slave trade was immoral but that existing slaves were not treated badly and had the advantage of being introduced to Christianity—in performance there would have been a more radical subtext to the play.

  9. While the pantomime remained popular in the early years of the nineteenth-century, it was eventually recast as a melodrama. While we tend to think of melodrama as a form present throughout Western drama, from Euripides to the movies, which is marked by rather flat, stereotyped characters and strong moralizing, melodrama was created as a word and a form in the late eighteenth century. Rousseau coined the term for his Pygmalion, a piece in which an actor pantomimes a series of emotions to appropriate music. "Melo-drama" literally means music-drama, and, in the hands of writers such as Pixérécourt in France and Colman and Morton in England, it became a mixed form of spoken drama into which continuous background music and songs were introduced. It was the most powerful of the "illegitimate" forms of drama that came to challenge the primacy of the verbal drama of the established tradition. In many ways, the melodrama versions of Obi strike me as both less interesting and less potentially radical than Fawcett's original pantomime, but they take on considerable interest since Ira Aldridge made the role of Jack, now also known as Karfa, one of his standard parts. The melodrama, as it converts the action of the pantomime into words, resorts to more stereotypical and even racist characterizations. The play also works to alienate our sympathies for Jack by making him guilty of crimes that the historical record makes clear he did not commit. Most importantly, we are told he attempted to rape his master's wife and he also plots against his daughter (I, i, p. 5; I, iii, ,9-10), while Moseley, in the source text for Jack's story, explicitly states, "though he had a mortal hatred to white men, he was never known to hurt a child, or abuse a woman" (199).

  10. Still, Aldridge could find enough in the character of Jack to make him into a titanic and sympathetic figure. Most importantly, Jack is given a voice in the melodrama, and he uses it to protest his enslavement and to argue that his actions are acts of revenge for the fact that slavers have killed his wife and torn him from his family and his homeland. He sees his acts as sacrifices to "the memory of my broken-hearted wife, my helpless infants, and the wrongs of my poor country" (I, iii, 10). When he is going to murder Rosa, a planter's daughter and the heroine of the play, she asks for mercy, and Jack responds, "You whites are ever ready to enforce for one another that civilized, that Christian law of mercy which our dusky children never yet partook of"(II, vi, p. 22). He accuses the white man of working to "enslave in every clime where his accu[r]sed arts find access" and he seeks to create in his cave an alternative world where "no white man finds an entrance, but as Karfa's slave . . . . The times have changed, and the white man must now labour for the black" (II, iv, pp. 18-19). Jack's revolt is given a motive—albeit one that had become a dramatic cliche, as sympathy was sought for slaves on the basis of the loss of family rather than the fact of slavery itself—and a vision of a world radically altered, where black triumphs over white.

  11. Aldridge was particularly suited to release the power of this role from its moralizing context. We know from contemporary accounts that audiences were ready to hear powerful moments in a play free from any overarching moral, aesthetic, or ideological framework,10 so Jack's speeches may have resonated beyond the conventional plot that frames them. Moreover, Aldridge was known for his portrayal of conflicted Gothic figures, such as Maturin's Bertram, and more importantly for his handling of key tragic heroes such as Othello who by definition offer a heroism that violates some moral norm; in other words, Aldridge specialized in roles where we might sympathize with a titanic figure despite the play's ultimate judgment of him. Aldridge was also adept at discovering within the restricted roles created for characters of African descent a powerful voice of protest. For example, one of his most famous roles was that of Mungo in Isaac Bickerstaffe's The Padlock, originally performed in 1768 and long popular in slave-holding Jamaica (Hill 79). This play, with a story-line taken from Cervantes, is about a jealous old man trying to control the desires of his young fiancé. The play features the slave Mungo who protests his enslavement, noting of white men that "My pain is dere game" (I, vi, p. 87) and who imagines a world of freedom where "tyed in his garters / Old Massa may swing" (II, ii, p. 96). As Aldridge's biographers put it, such moments "gave Aldridge the scope and opportunity to develop the character of a simple, apparently stupid, slave into a rebel against slavery" (Marshall and Stock 75). We can be sure that Aldridge did even more with the role of Three-Finger'd Jack. Whatever the text finally seems to say, Aldridge would have focused upon those moments in which Jack voiced his protest against slavery and his white oppressors. That is, Aldridge would have engaged in what Gates has identified as a particularly African-American mode of literary response, a kind of ironic repetition and revision he calls "signifyin[g]" (Signifying Monkey). While Gates is concerned with how African-American writers take up aspects of both an African and an English language tradition in order to remake them as their own, we can see how Aldridge could do the same with a British play: whatever the intentions of the authors of the Obi pantomime and melodramas, in Aldridge's hands this play could become a vehicle for protest.

  12. That the play would have been recognized as being remade by Aldridge as his own is signaled by an interesting meta-theatrical intrusion into the text. One of the songs interpolated into the melodrama version of Obi is "Opossum up a gum tree," a song which in some of its versions protested slavery and celebrated the cleverness of the oppressed. This song had been made famous in England by the great comic actor and impersonator, Charles Mathews, who claimed to do it in imitation of Aldridge as a set piece in his Trip to America. While it appears that Mathews made up his story of how he came to borrow the song from Aldridge (Aldridge 11), it became linked to Aldridge and audiences came to demand that it be included in his performances; Aldridge would end up doing imitations of Mathews's imitations, repeating his repetition with a difference and turning the tables on the impersonator. While in Obi "Possum up a gum tree" is sung by Tuckey rather than Jack, its presence in a vehicle for Aldridge provides a kind of metatheatrical signature, a way of signifyin[g] that this has been made into his play. Moreover, the song, which celebrates various tricky characters, allows us to see Jack not as a villain but as a trickster, an avatar of the great African trickster divinity Esu-Elegbara. In the hands of Ira Aldridge, this play which had a mixed ideological message in the time of abolition becomes a strong statement for emancipation, and beyond that for the end of American slavery and the liberation of Africans everywhere.

    Works Cited

    Aldridge, Ira. Memoir and Theatrical Career of Ira Aldridge, The African Roscius. London: Onwhyn, 1848.

    Avery, Emmett L., Charles Beecher Hogan, Arthur H. Scouten, George Winchester Stone, and William Van Lennep, eds. The London Stage 1660-1800. 5 parts, 11 vols. Carbondale: University of Southern Illinois Press, 1960-68.

    Bickerstaffe, Isaac. The Padlock. Slavery, Abolition, and Emancipation: Writings in the British Romantic Period. Eds. Peter J. Kitson and Debbie Lee. Vol 5. London: Pickering & Chatto, 1999.

    Burling, William J. The Summer Theater in London, 1661-1820, and the Rise of the Haymarket Theatre. Madison: Farleigh Dickinson Press; London: Associated University Presses, 2000.

    Cockrell, Dale. Demons of Disorder: Early Blackface Minstrels and Their World Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

    Colman, George, the Younger. Testimony. "Report from the Select Committee Appointed to Inquire into the laws Affecting Dramatic Literature" (1832). Irish University Press Series of British Parliamentary Papers, Stage and Theatre. Vol 1. Shannon: Irish University Press, 1968. 66.

    Connoly, L. W. The Censorship of the English Drama 1737-1824. San Marino, CA: Huntington Library, 1976.

    Cox, Jeffrey. "Ideology and Genre in the British Antirevolutionary Drama in the 1790s," ELH 58 (1992): 579-610

    ---. Introduction. Slavery, Abolition, and Emancipation: Writings in the British Romantic Period. Eds. Peter J. Kitson and Debbie Lee. Vol 5. London: Pickering & Chatto, 1999. xxi-xxiii.

    Earle, William, Jr. "Advertisement." Obi; or, The History of Three Fingered Jack. 2nd ed. Worcester: Isaiah Thomas, Jr., 1804. 97.

    Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988.

    ---. Figures in Black: Words, Signs, and the "Racial" Self. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987.

    Genovese, Eugene. From Rebellion to Revolution: Afro-American Slave Revolts in the Making of the New World. 2nd Ed. New York: Vintage, 1981.

    Hill, Errol. The Jamaican Stage 1655-1900. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1992.

    Hoskins, Robert, with Eileen Southern. Introduction. "Obi; or, Three-Fingered Jack." Music for London Entertainment. Series D, Vol 4. London: Stainer and Bell, 1996.

    James, C.L.R. The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L'Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution. New York: Vintage, 1963.

    Lhamon, W. T. Raising Cain: Blackface Performance from Jim Crow to Hip Hop. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998.

    Lott, Eric. Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

    Marshall, Herbert, and Mildred Stock. Ira Aldridge, The Negro Tragedian. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press; London: Feffer & Simmons, Inc., 1958.

    Mayer, David. Harlequin in His Element. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1969.

    Moseley, Benjamin. A Treatise on Sugar, with Miscellaneous Medical Observations. London: G. G. and J. Robinson, 1799; rev. ed. 1800.

    Nicholson, Watson. The Struggle for a Free Stage in London. 2nd Ed. New York: Benjamin Blon, 1966.

    Richardson, Alan. "Romantic Voodoo: Obeah and British Culture, 1797-1807," Studies in Romanticism 32 (Spring 1993). 5-12.

    Rzepka, Charles J. "Thomas De Quincey's 'Three Fingered Jack': The West Indian Origins of the 'Dark Interpreter'," European Romantic Review 8 (Spring 1997). 117-38.

    Sutcliffe, Barry. Introduction. Plays by George Colman the Younger and Thomas Morton. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983.


    1For performance information, see Avery et al, and Burling, esp. 171-74, 202-206. Obi continued to be popular in the theater: it received twenty performances the next summer and fifteen in 1802; it continued long in the repertoire of the theaters in London, the provinces (it was a hit on the York circuit in 1801 and 1802), and the United States. Despite local interest, it did not play in Jamaica until 1862, and then only for one performance of a much altered version (See Hill).

    2We know that Aldridge played Obi in March 1830 at the Theatre Royal Bristol in a "new and beautiful Melodrama, founded on fact, and written expressly for the African Roscius by J. Murray, Esq." Of course, this "new" melodrama was in fact an adaptation of Fawcett's pantomime. Obi had been part of the repertoire of the African Theatre in New York, so it is possible that Aldridge performed in the play prior to his move to England, probably in 1824; we know he was playing the part as late as 1860. See also Marshall and Stock, 89, 250.

    3On Obi, see Rzepka, Hoskins and Cox ("Introduction").

    4See also James.

    5See also Cox ("Ideology and Genre"), Connoly, and Nicholson.

    6There were attempts to write tragedies that treated slavery, including Thomas Southerne's 1695 adaptation of Aphra Behn's Oroonoko (and later revisions of his play) and Inkle and Yarico: A Tragedy of Three Acts (1742) ascribed to Mrs. Weddell, but there are surprisingly few such works.

    7He also wrote an adaptation of Kotzebue's Perouse; or, The Desolate Island (Covent Garden, 1801), two ballets, The Fairies' Revels; or, Love in the Highlands (Haymarket, 1802) and The Enchanted Island (Haymarket, 1804), a melodrama with Thomas John Dibdin entitled The Secret Mine (Covent Garden, 1812), and a version of The Barber of Seville written with Daniel Terry (Covent Garden, 1818).

    8On the harlequinade, see Mayer.

    9For a possible link between Harlequin and portrayals of "blackness," see Gates (Figures in Black), 51-52. See also Lott, Cockrell, and Lhamon.

    10For example, in 1810, Colman wrote to one of his partners about a play that was being prepared for the Haymarket, expressing his "utter astonishment" that "Over the Water Charley" was to be sung at the close: "This is putting a lighted match to a barrel of gunpowder. . . . Surely you must be aware, with all the world, that this is a rebel song?" (Qtd. in Sutcliffe, p. 6). The song alone, independent of context, was enough to stir up the audience.

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August 2002